Tools of the trade …
Building synthesiser modules has a lot in common with writing software – it is important to do one thing and do it well, and having the correct tools for the job is a definite bonus too.
Here’s a brief rundown of the stuff that I use …
Solder and soldering tools
It took a while, but I now use lead-free solder almost exclusively nowadays – whilst it has a reputation of being a pain to work with, given a good quality soldering iron (see below) then it’s almost as easy to work with as traditional 60:40 leaded solder.
I generally keep two diameters in stock – 0.5mm for ‘general’ or through-hole use and 0.25mm for surface-mount or very small PTH components. The 0.5mm is also handy for doing ‘bigger’ stuff like power jacks.
Solder removal is important, too – screwups are bound to happen
and it’s good to be able to unscrew them. For these we have a solder sucker and a reel of desoldering braid, which is basically copper braid containing flux – it wicks the solder away from a joint.
A word of warning about ‘cheap’ desoldering braid off eBay – don’t bother. This is one of the few occasions where buying a known brand will save a lot of hassle – various widths are available, but I find that 2mm covers most of the bases (I use this) although I keep a small reel of 1mm around just in case I need it.
You really can’t do SMD soldering without flux – granted, most solder contains flux already but in the sort of diameters that you’d use for soldering surface-mount components (I use 0.25mm) there’s not a great deal of flux in there and sometimes you need a bit extra to encourage the solder to flow where it is needed.
Flux pens have their adherents, and it’s the sort of thing that’s handy to have but I much prefer a liquid flux in a bottle complete with a brush applicator. This is personal preference – if you want to use a flux pen, knock yourself out. However, realise that you almost invariably will need extra flux for SMD soldering jobs (and it’s handy for removing solder, too)
The stuff that I use is Topnik TK83 – available on eBay (other online emporia are available)
Whilst it helps to have a work area which has good access to natural light (my workbench is right by the window in my spare bedroom) sometimes you need a bit of extra illumination. I use an LED desk lamp which I purchased from Hobbycraft (this one) – it doesn’t take up a lot of desk space, gives nice, flat illumination and is also portable.
It serves double duty when I need extra illumination for photos, too.
Of course, you don’t have to spend money on a ‘dedicated’ work lamp – anything with a bulb will do the job, although it helps immensely if the head of the lamp can be adjusted (anglepoise lamps are ideal)
You can’t really do anything without a soldering iron of some description – if you’re serious about building your own stuff then a good quality, temperature-controlled soldering iron is essential. Even better, you don’t need to spend an absolute fortune or go second-hand unless you absolutely have to.
My weapon of choice is the Tenma 21-10115 digital soldering station from Farnell – it is adjustable between 150 and 450C and practically every bit of it is available as a spare part (everything from spare bits through to heating elements or even a complete new soldering iron). It’s good enough that I actually have two of them – mine gets used pretty much every day and has performed like a champ. For soldering surface-mount components I usually use an 0.5mm chisel tip – it’s very rare that I have to use anything larger.
For £50 or thereabouts it’s an absolute no-brainer.
Hot-air rework station
Not strictly necessary, but if you’re doing a lot of SMD work you’re going to need one eventually, whether it’s for salvaging components from old PCBs or realigning SMD components. The one that I use is a non-name station I picked up off eBay for around £25 including shipping.
It is temperature controllable (100-450C) and has variable speed airflow and a selection of three different sized nozzles (6.4mm is the one I use the most. Unlike a lot of models which blow hot air from within the base station, this one has a heater and blower in the handle, which is rather neat.
Time will tell how robust it is – the build quality is certainly very good, and it beats paying over £100 for a ‘name’ brand.
Hand tools are important too – at very least you’re going to need:
- Wire strippers – the ones I currently use are SparkFun branded and will strip wire from 20AWG down to 30AWG (eg. Kynar wire).
- Side cutters – for cutting the leads of through-hole components and, of course, wire.
- Pliers – for bending leads and, well, holding things.
- Tweezers – essential for SMD work. I’m a big fan of Vetus ESD anti-magnetic tweezers to the point that I have two pairs of the ESD-14s. A pair of ‘reverse action’ tweezers is handy too, especially for holding components in place while you’re soldering them. The use-case for the fine tweezers should be fairly obvious – trying to solder SMD without them will quickly lead to burnt fingers and frustration.
IDC crimpers fall into the ‘nice to have’ category – I like to make my own Eurorack power cables so they’re pretty much essential for me. Since I make my own cables, a ready supply of 10 and 16-pin IDC connectors is rather important too (I usually buy these on bulk off eBay)
This is the tool I use.
One final word: be prepared to spend a bit of money on your hand tools – cheap stuff is a false economy.